Group therapy: are bands really out of fashion?
The most infamous line in A&R history was reportedly uttered by Decca Records’ Dick Rowe on 1 January 1962 while auditioning two new bands, The Beatles & Brian Poole & The Tremeloes, with a view to offering one of them a record deal. He eventually selected Brian Poole & The Tremeloes, telling the manager of the former act he turned down, “Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr Epstein.” Just over a year later, they were well on their way to being the biggest band in the UK and a year after, Beatlemania was about to erupt across America.
The veracity of what happened at that audition has subsequently been questioned and the quality of The Beatles’ performance on the day was said to have been underwhelming. Even though Rowe signed The Rolling Stones the following year, the line attributed to him quickly became a morality tale for the music business. No one wanted to become the new Dick Rowe.
Even so, periodically a claim is made that, once again, “guitar groups are on their way out”. In the last decade, a number of newspaper articles have been run on this very theme. “Is guitar music on the way out?” asked The Guardian in 2012. “Is Guitar Music Dead?” pondered Huffington Post the following year. “Rock Is Dead, Thank God,” cheered Vice a few years later. The closure of the NME as a print magazine and the financial woes of Gibson led to The Independent asking in 2018, “Are guitar bands officially dead?” The same paper said the next year that the guitar both was and wasn’t dead, making it the Schrödinger’s cat of rock.
A quote from Adam Levine from Maroon 5 in March this year reignited this age-old debate. “It’s funny, when the first Maroon 5 album came out there were still other bands,” he told Zane Lowe on his Apple Music show. “I feel like there aren’t any bands anymore, you know?” he said.
The Guardian tackled the matter and heard from those arguing the cases both for and against. Schrödinger’s cat sat quietly on the side.
Success metrics are constantly changing
Hanging over this debate is a question about how success is measured in an age of global streaming.
“I thought it was a very narrow view and a weird way of approaching the subject of a band, which essentially means a group of four people making music together,” says Malena Wolfer, head of artist services at Believe UK, on the Adam Levine comment. “Yes, it’s heavily dominated by solo artists, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t any bands anymore. That statement just didn’t seem to be true at all.”
She adds, “It’s interesting to see YouTube’s approach, wherein they don’t just measure an artist’s success by the amount of video views, but also by the number of comments and likes on their videos, how active the artist is in releasing videos on the platform, using the YouTube Community platform and so on. In our opinion, success should be measured in long-term growth and the ability to build an active and engaged fanbase.”
Streaming has actually created such a healthy ecosystem [for bands] in terms of creating niches and presenting niche artists to audiences that they previously wouldn’t have reached.
Physical attraction: why D2C and streaming tell two very different stories about success
For many rock and alternative groups there is a growing emphasis on their D2C strategy and driving pre-release sales to boost their first-week chart position; but such front-loading naturally means they slip down the charts the following week if there is not considerable momentum in their streaming numbers.
While LP/CD/cassette/download sales are important for these acts and will concentrate their chart performance in the first week, Wolfer suggests it is far from the case that it is an either/or matter when it comes to physical sales and streaming performance. She cites a number of Believe-affiliated groups who are benefitting from streaming support.
“Vistas were championed by Spotify as one of their RADAR artists in 2020,” she says. “It’s not right to say that streaming doesn’t favour rock bands. We’re seeing the same with YONAKA and with The Hunna where we had massive support from DSPs across their campaigns.”
She adds, “Streaming has actually created such a healthy ecosystem [for bands] in terms of creating niches and presenting niche artists to audiences that they previously wouldn’t have reached. Success today might not mean breaking a band and reaching platinum sales but actually it is just enabling an artist to make a good living from their music – whether that’s through just streaming or whether that’s streaming combined with touring.”
The show will (hopefully) go on: how the lack of touring during the pandemic has affected groups
Live is such a powerful part of a band’s marketing and promotion. With touring having been cancelled for over a year, they are going to be seriously disadvantaged compared to acts whose natural promotional home is Spotify, Apple Music, TikTok and YouTube.
Wolfer suggests, however, that this has seen a step change in how bands approach their marketing, accelerating what they have already been doing in recent years.
“Bands like Yonaka have always built their fanbase around social media and it is the same with The Hunna,” she says. “A lot of the young bands complemented their live touring with really engaged fanbases online, growing their socials and keeping fans engaged. One thing that the pandemic has maybe thrown up is that these bands just got more savvy.”
Really, what we are talking about here is that rock music (and by default bands) is not dominating the charts in the way there were in, say, the 1960s, the 1970s or the 1990s; but it does not automatically follow that they have been evaporated completely.
Look at 10 or 15 years ago – indie rock bands were all the rage, Now they are not. Chances are that someone who was into The Strokes [in 2001] now has children aged 10 or 15 and they are not going to listen to the same music as their mum and dad.
Spin cycle: moving in and out of fashion – and back in again
It has all, rather unhelpfully, become something of a binary debate: bands are presumed to either be everywhere or, if they are not, they are nowhere. The reality, as always, is somewhere in the middle. Bands still exist. Bands still have careers. New bands are coming through. Even newer bands are being formed. How their impact is measured, however, is what has changed.
“I think chart success and sales certifications are slightly dated markers of success,” says Wolfer. “I’ve seen bands with platinum singles who were unable to sell out a tour, whereas I’ve seen niche streaming artists sell out tours from the UK to the US and all the way to China.”
For her, the simple fact that genres rise and fall in a cyclical nature cannot be forgotten here. “Look at 10 or 15 years ago – indie rock bands were all the rage,” she says. “Now they are not. Chances are that someone who was into The Strokes [in 2001] now has children aged 10 or 15 and they are not going to listen to the same music as their mum and dad. They are going to rebel and listen to electronic music, grime or drill to set themselves apart from the previous generation. Trends come and go.”
It all ends up being an echo of the line Mark Twain delivered in 1897 in response to a New York Journal writer asking about rumours of him being gravely ill – or even worse. “The report of my death was an exaggeration,” said Twain. It was a line that Paul McCartney was to rehash in 1969 at the peak of the “Paul Is Dead” conspiracy theories. “Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” he said wryly.
Somewhere in between Dick Rowe’s alleged comment at the start of The Beatles’ career and Paul McCartney’s quote towards the end of The Beatles’ career lies the truth.
Groups are dead. Long live groups.